By Reaven D’Souza
Managing Editor

Mother Earth Day on 22 April went largely unheralded in the midst of the Eid-al-Fitr holidays and related feasts, festivities, and an inordinate amount of food wastage that ran counter to the theme of this year’s Earth Day, to ‘Invest in our Planet’. The humongous amount of food that ends up in trash bins during this period is not only indicative of wanton wastage, but is also unfortunate, in particular when one considers that Eid-al-Fitr is a time when we are enjoined to think of those less fortunate, and to recognize our responsibility to the collective welfare of humanity.

Household waste generated during festive celebrations in Kuwait comprises largely of discarded food items along with plastic bags and bottles, paper and styrofoam packings, soda cans and glass bottles. According to a report by Kuwait’s Environment Public Authority (EPA), in 2018, the country generated around 1.6 kg of municipal solid waste per person per day. This waste is far higher than the global average daily waste of 0.74 kg per capita, and also higher relative to the average per capita waste of 1.5 kg among other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

According to estimates by researchers at EPA, Kuwait generated between 37 to 43 million tons of waste in 2018. To get a better picture of the enormity of this waste, consider that the total carrying capacity of Kuwait’s Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) tanker, Al Derwaza, is around 357,000 tons. It would take more than 110 such tankers to ferry all the waste that Kuwait generated in just 2018.

Most of the waste generated in Kuwait ends up in one of several unengineered landfills that dot the country. Surprisingly, for a small country with a total land area of less than 18,000 square kilometers (km²) Kuwait has a surfeit of landfills — 19 to be exact. Thankfully, over the years, 11 of these landfills have been closed, but sadly, not fully rehabilitated, as these landfills

were just dumping grounds without proper waste management facilities. Even the six currently operational landfills are also not fully engineered; they do not have adequate protective layers beneath the landfill to prevent seepage from the waste being absorbed by the soil below, nor do they have the equipment to collect landfill gas. Only two engineered waste treatment plants are at present operational in Kuwait, one in Al-Wafra, which treats industrial waste-water, and the other in Al-Shuaiba, dedicated to treating industrial solid-waste.

According to the most recent geometric survey conducted by EPA, in 2020 the area containing landfilled waste was nearly 20km², or around 0.1 percent of Kuwait’s total land area. To put this area in perspective, the gross land area of Kuwait’s largest stadium, the Jaber Al-Ahmad International Stadium in Ardiya, is only around 0.4 km². In other words, you could construct more than 50 such stadiums in the total landfilled area of Kuwait.

Much of household waste destined for these landfills are trashed food and other material with high organic content. Besides organic material, the waste also includes significant amounts of economically valuable recyclable material such as paper, packing cartons, electronic, electric and plastic waste. But, since the recyclable items are not segregated at the time of being dumped by consumers, or after they are collected, much of this waste goes unrecovered into the landfills.

Meanwhile, organic matter in the trash undergoes natural biochemical decomposition, and over time water from decomposed material, aided by rain water seeps down into the soil as leachates that are harmful to plant and animal life in the area. Eventually the seepage percolates deeper into soil contaminating Kuwait’s limited groundwater supplies. Degradation of organic matter also generates landfill gases such as methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) that, unless collected properly, will contribute to global warming and climate change.

Studies by the EPA and others show the major landfills in Kuwait currently emit a total of over 47,500 cubic meters (m³) of landfill gas per hour, or the equivalent of 4.5 million tons of CO2 equivalents per year. Prevention of these emissions with proper landfill gas collection systems could make a significant dent to Kuwait’s greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to protecting and preserving the environment for future generations.

Even though the last garbage trucks have stopped plying trash to the closed landfill sites, they already enclose an estimated 56 million m³ of waste that continues to impact the environment and the health of people living in nearby areas. Natural outbreaks of fires have engulfed closed landfill areas, with several instances of spontaneous fires erupting at the Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh landfill near Kuwait International Airport. Fires have also in the past occurred at the Al-Rheyya landfill, which was a graveyard for millions of used tires before they were shifted to a new recycling plant in Al Salmi.

Unless long-term remediation work is done on the accumulated waste, closed landfills will continue to pose a threat to the environment and to the health of people living in proximity to these sites. Moreover, any hope of making these closed landfills available for land use in the near future remains limited, as other hazards lurk beneath the surface of these landfills.

Besides gas emissions that lead to potential explosions and fires, the ground below landfills is also unstable. As the waste decays over the years the land above sinks down further. This land sinkage was highlighted during recent expansion work on Kuwait International Airport, which lies adjacent to the closed Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh landfill area. Contractors at the work site had to consider the potential for land sinkage and include additional firming of soil before work could proceed.

However, landfills are not necessarily a waste of limited land, they can be reimagined in creative ways, including converting them into nature reserves through planting of selected varieties of trees and shrubs known to decontaminate the soil naturally. Vegetation also helps firm up the underlying soil and could actually lead to a thriving ecosystem.

Additionally, using advanced landfill gas collection systems, highly potent greenhouse gases such as methane that emit from landfills could be collected and reused for energy generation, thereby providing an economic incentive for such investments. But sadly, in Kuwait, environmental issues have been accorded low-priority by governments, lawmakers and the public at large.

Over the years, the economy has trumped ecology, with economic growth overriding the need to protect and preserve the environment. This indifference to environmental issues has been made abundantly clear on various occasions, including in the aftermath of the country’s liberation in 1991. Impelled to rebuild the country in the wake of the widespread destruction inflicted by the Iraqi forces, Kuwait set forth on an ambitious path of reconstruction and rehabilitation.

The priority focus understandably was on capping the blazing oil wells that were gushing out oil by the minute. Although the fires were an environmental hazard to the country and the region, the urgency to cap the wells stemmed largely from their value to the economy. Repairing damages caused to the environment during the occupation and subsequent war to liberate Kuwait, as well as the need to resuscitate devastated ecosystems were shelved, if not ignored by the authorities.

Kuwait’s dawdling approach to environmental issues was evident in late December of last year, when Kuwait Oil Company, the country’s main upstream oil operator, announced the awarding of the last tranche of tenders for its oil-field soil remediation program. The fact that the KD160 million tender, which aims to revive soil contaminated by the oil fires in 1991, was finally awarded more than three decades after the invasion, speaks volumes of the importance accorded to environmental issues in this country.

It was only in the wake of the humongous environmental damage sustained to its natural ecosystem and environment during the invasion that Kuwait even acknowledged the need for a separate entity to tackle environmental issues. Accordingly, in 1995, the government introduced a law to establish the Environment Public Authority (EPA) and mandated it to protect and preserve the environment of Kuwait. To its credit, the EPA has been doing yeoman service to the country and its environment since its inception.

As part of its aim to move the country towards a circular economy and promote a sustainable environment, the EPA initiated and developed the Kuwait National Waste Management Strategy (KNWMS) 2040. The Authority also launched a multi-year study titled, ‘Survey and Establishment of a Comprehensive Database for Waste Management in Kuwait’ (eMISKWaste), to gather accurate data on landfills and current waste management processes in Kuwait.

The KNWMS aims to raise awareness among the public on responsible environmental behavior, and to provide accurate and timely information and data on environmental matters. The KNWMS also seeks to implement processes to separate, recycle and reduce more of the waste generated in the country. The EPA also spearheads an ‘Environmental Week’ each year in March that seeks to educate people about protecting the environment and natural resources in the country.

In a press statement ahead of this year’s Environmental Week, which was held under the theme of ‘Protecting the environment begins with you’, from 6th to 12th March, the Chairman and Director General of EPA Sheikh Abdullah Ahmad Al-Humoud Al-Sabah urged citizens and residents to directly contribute to reducing the amount of waste they produce and help protect the environment.  On a related note, in his remarks on the latest report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — the UN entity tasked to advance scientific knowledge about climate change caused by human activities — UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that pollutants created by human activities were responsible for virtually all global heating over the last 200 years. He added that the rate of temperature rise in the last half century was the highest in 2,000 years, and that concentrations of carbon dioxide were at their highest in at least two million years.

“The climate time-bomb is ticking, and the IPCC report is a how-to guide to defuse this bomb; it is a survival guide for humanity. The report is a clarion call to massively fast-track climate efforts by every country and every sector and on every timeframe. In short, our world needs climate action on all fronts — everything, everywhere, and all at once. Every country must be part of the solution. Demanding others move first only ensures humanity comes last,” warned the secretary-general. We wish relevant authorities in Kuwait would read the UN report in its entirety and accord environment the priority it urgently needs.

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